The new show at Tate Britain, British Baroque: Power and Illusion starts in another epoch when our relationship with Europe was a tad strained, let us say, and ends at the point when a German prince who spoke not a word of English was invited – if not begged – to take over the English throne. You’d almost think Tate Britain had timed this show deliberately.
Charles II, the first English monarch of the Baroque age, was born 390 years ago this year, and came to the throne in 1660, at the age of thirty, by which time he looked like a raddled old man of fifty, as Samuel Cooper’s miniature of him, one of the first exhibits in the show confirms (likewise Charles’s startling resemblance to Clark Gable). Much of Charles’s youth had been spent penniless and homeless, prince but pauper, at the Dutch and French courts, and the baroque – all flying draperies and swirls of stone – is, you might argue, a European style, in particular a French style; and it was an artistic language the English never quite bothered to learn fluently. The splendour of the Sun King’s court, which the one-time beggarly Charles was utterly determined to emulate, had visitors open-mouthed, but over here, it lost something in translation. There are three fascinating views of London in this show, and what comes across from all three of them is that you could build your new St Paul’s, your Greenwich Observatory, your Royal Hospital, in as grand and up-to-the-minute a style as your liked, the higgledy-piggledy architecture of vernacular London would still elbow them aside.
That’s what makes the English baroque different. The baroque is an aesthetic of absolute power – all very well when you’re Louis XIV; a bit more difficult to pull off if you’re the son of Charles I. Or the second, and inconveniently Catholic, son of Charles I. Or the Dutch nephew to those sons of Charles I, and owe your presence on the English throne to a political cabal. The illusion, you can’t help but reflect, was that the kings and queens of later Stuart England held much power at all.
Of course that only made going all-out to keep that illusion intact all the more vital. Verrio’s Sea Triumph of c.1674 kicks the show off, and honestly, just look at the thing: mermaids, tritons, Neptune, cupids, and Charles II up atop, looking about as comfortable as a man seated on a mechanical bull and waiting for it to start bucking, Even better is the fantastically OTT portrait of his brother, James, Duke of York, done up like a Roman Emperor, with turquoise leggings and diddy bejewelled Roman sandals of blue ribbon. Who, even then, could take this seriously?
Beauty itself is an illusion in this show. Barbara Villiers looks plain to us, and as for those other double-chinned, torpid court beauties, silks a-flutter, endlessly masquerading – goodness me, they’re a bunch of fuglies. The only one who still looks attractive today, with her heart-shaped, winsome little face is the French-born Duchess of Portsmouth. Worst of all is Charles’s II’s unfortunate queen, Catherine of Braganza, in a portrait by Jacob Huysmans of 1662-4, looking like a fat and rather stupid child, with five o’clock shadow, and accessorized with a ridiculous purple headdress, two lambs, flowers, a duck-pond (why?), duck and duckling, cupids, silks, jewels, and her one beauty, this fall of dark hair to her waist, and that was probably a hairpiece. If Charles II’s court was Love Island, poor Catherine was the girl nobody wanted. Just too much, too much altogether.
But walk into the section of the show devoted to the rise of the country house and garden, and then you begin to understand where the real power came to lie in the land. In the grand country houses such as Chatsworth and Blenheim, the monarchs of these small worlds were busy effecting a comprehensive aesthetic transformation, where everything, even the art on the walls and ceilings was subordinated to pounding out the one message: we are in charge here. Even their other halves look better than the so-called beauties at court, or at least they do in the portraits of two sisters by John Michael Wright – characterful, clear-sighted, and without a shepherdess costume in sight.
And occasionally, as the Stuart age wore on, we were in charge. There were triumphs at sea, and victories such as Marlborough’s on land, and the wider world was being opened up, hard-won degree of longitude by degree. You could say the age of the baroque was where the British empire started. It’s a lot for one show to touch upon, but the Tate makes a very game stab at alluding, at least, to it all – the new understanding of science and mathematics, the power-plays of Whigs in wigs, the love of trompe-l’oeil (more illusion), and the steady shift in power from the crown to those who served the country. The show ends with a portrait of a mysteriously unidentified Lord Mayor of London of c.1695-1705 by John Closterman, an image of such unshakable autocracy it was purchased in the 1920s as being a portrait of the Grand Dauphin. This show starts with the divine right of kings still visible over one’s shoulder; it ends here, with the elected official in triumph, and the modern world in sight.
British Baroque: Power and Illusion
Tate Britain, 4 February – 19 April 2020